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Les hommes libres

May 12, 2012
Les Hommes Libres

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything new in the Holocaust/German Occupation genre. Most often it amounts to what I’ve called “Holocaust porn”, with interchangeable parts that can be swapped out of a common baseline story to get yet another hit of that good, old-fashioned emotional response the fans seek out. But in Les hommes libres — released in English as Free Men — I find a story that, if not entirely new, is at least one I haven’t seen before: the role of Muslims in Vichy France.

Younes (Tahar Rahim) is a young Algerian in occupied Paris. He used to work in a factory, but now trades on the black market to send money back home. It’s only a matter of time before he’s picked up by an immigrations inspector (Bruno Fleury), who says he’ll look the other way if Younes will report on what’s happening inside the local mosque. The occupying Germans — headed by Major von Ratibor (Christopher Buchholz) — think that the imam is issuing falsified certificates to Jews, claiming that they’re really Muslims and thus not subject to arrest, deportation, and execution. They can’t just storm in because the mosque also serves as the embassy from Morocco, and the plenipotentiary minister Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) wouldn’t take well to that.

Of course it’s true that they’re providing these certificates, not to mention housing a cell of the French Resistance. Younes sticks out like a sore thumb, and Ben Ghabrit takes him under his wing. Younes makes friends inside, including Leila (Lubna Azabal), a woman active in the Resistance, and Salim Halali (Mahmoud Shalaby), a talented young Algerian singer based on the very real post-war founder of the Ismaïlia Folies nightclub. As time goes on, Younes is drawn deeper into this network, and we follow along to see more of what he witnesses.

Writer/director Ismaël Ferroukhi has struck upon a very good question: what were the North African — particularly Algerian — immigrants in France doing during the occupation? Obviously the modern popular narrative is one of unalloyed strife between Muslims and Jews, but it wasn’t always this way. The history of Jews in North Africa goes back literally thousands of years, with a huge influx of Sephardim in the fifteenth century. The two groups share many traits that Nazi eugenicists used to identify Jews, which if nothing else just shows how silly and unfounded the whole theory was. If anything, I’m surprised it’s taken this long to get around to exploring this story.

Rahim does well as Younes, though Shalaby is more impressive as Salim. Rahim is likable enough, but Younes amounts to little more than a bland audience surrogate. Salim is a much meatier part, faced with troubles at every turn, and Shalaby brings out not only his angst but his ambivalence. He’s obviously angry at his situation — an anger that finds expression in his music — but there are times he wants to just stop fighting and give up, and really can you blame him?

Is this the best entry in the genre? no. But it’s something new, and it’s made to inspire as much thought as feeling. Maybe there’s life in this old trope after all.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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